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Democrats hope to regroup at state convention

AUSTIN — If the grueling presidential primary season left the Democratic Party divided, the strongest evidence of the breech should be found in Texas, where Hillary Clinton took Round One of the complicated voting process and Barack Obama won Round Two.

But with the nomination contest apparently settled, Texas Democrats began arriving in Austin on Thursday for their state convention this weekend with party leaders loudly sounded the trumpets of unity.

"If I could write the headline for this convention if would be that Texas Democrats are coming together to harness that energy we saw in the March primary to throw out those contrived labels that have divided this country for too long," said state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who will preside over the convention that begins in earnest today and continues through Saturday.

It will be up to Watson, a first-term state lawmaker who was Austin's mayor in the late 1990s and the Democrats' 2002 nominee for Texas attorney general, to ensure that any lingering bruised feelings from the just-concluded presidential primary fight won by Obama from bubbling up to the convention floor.

State Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat who supported Obama during the primary season, said he's betting that most Democrats are looking forward to bridging any divide within the party for the simple reason that they want to win in the fall.

"There is a sense of urgency that in order to really make a difference that we all must go back to the polls in November to help elect Senator Obama and other Democrats to help make America stronger and more united," Veasey said.

Austin state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a Clinton backer, agreed.

"I supported Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, but I am a Democrat first," he said. "Now that Sen. Obama's our nominee, I'm behind him. And I suspect most Democrats will be, too."

Planning the platform

At a pre-convention platform Thursday, Democrats hammered out the first draft of their new 2008 party platform, stressing help for needy Texans during the economic downturn and ratcheting up criticism of the Republican Party over health care, the state budget and fiscal policies.

The proposal, awaiting approval by convention delegates this weekend, takes special aim at the new "margins tax" the Legislature approved last year. The controversial levy, loathed by small business owners who had escaped taxation for years in Texas, was designed to provide stable education funding and raise money for property tax relief.

But Democrats say it went too far. "We believe the new Republican 'margins tax' burdens small business unfairly at the very time the Republican recession has left many struggling to survive," the proposal says.

The Democrats also propose extending property tax cuts to renters and urge a higher homestead exemption, which is currently fixed at $15,000 per homeowner.

On health care, the proposed platform says: "Texas Democrats support, in the absence of a national plan, the creation of a Texas universal health care plan to insure that every Texas resident has health insurance that covers medical and dental care, full reproductive health services, preventative services, prescription drugs and mental health counseling and treatment."

Targeting a GOP official

Democrats also turned their ire on the Republican land commissioner, who has stirred up controversy with a plan to sell off the state-owned Christmas Mountains in far west Texas.

"Recent actions by Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson have violated the public trust and highlighted the need to reverse years of Republican neglect of our state parks and public lands," the draft platform says.

Send in the surrogate

State Democratic Party officials had held out hope that one or both of the presidential contenders would address the delegates in Austin, but neither camp could commit as long as the primary race was unsettled. Former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, who led Clinton's efforts in the state, said early on that the New York senator would like to attend if for no other reason than to make sure she'd have as many Texas delegates as possible sent to the national convention in Denver later in the summer.

But Clinton instead will be hosting an event in Washington on Saturday to effectively concede the nomination to Obama.

Obama, meanwhile, will be represented in Texas on Friday by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, one of his campaign co-chairmen. Kaine, who was campaigning in his home state with Obama on Thursday, has been mentioned as a possible running mate for the Illinois senator.

Leadership battle looms

Fort Worth educator Roy LaVerne Brooks, vice chairwoman of the party, is planning to challenge Chairman Boyd Richie for the top post. Richie, who took over the party two years ago, says he want to build on the gains made in 2006 when Democrats picked up a half-dozen state House seats. Brooks says new blood is needed.

GOP unimpressed

Republican spokesman Hans Klingler said that each election cycle Democrats promise to make gains in Texas, and each time Republican domination continues. This year will be no different, he predicted.

"They sound angry, they sound vapid of ideas and they sound darned expensive," Klingler said. "Texas taxpayers and voters of all stripes will look at these proposals and these sort of angry, caustic rantings by the Democrats and take it for what it is, and that's idea-less."